If you travel to Germany’s Berlin now, you may see women swimming or sunbathing topless at the public pools after the city’s authorities passed a new ruling.
Following a complaint filed by a French woman, claiming she’d been discriminated against when she was asked to cover up by security guards, Berlin will now allow all — women, men and non-binary — to swim and sunbathe topless in public pools. Authorities agreed they had been victims of discrimination and passed the ruling, which is being hailed as a step forward for gender equality in the German capital.
The decision is also being hailed by proponents of Germany’s freikorperkultur, or “free body culture”.
Let’s take a closer look at the new ruling and the history of free body culture in the European country.
No holds bra-ed
Berlin’s new regulation comes after a French woman, Lotte Mies, filed a complaint after she was thrown out of a public pool for sunbathing topless. Mies stated that in December last year she was ordered to cover up at an indoor pool in Berlin after going topless.
Speaking to Germany’s Bild newspaper, she said: “The police officer asked me what gender I identify with. When I said ‘female’, it meant that I had to wear a top.” She then made a complaint to Berlin’s equality watchdog, which said it was discrimination to prevent women from going topless if they chose.
A similar incident also happened at a water park in Berlin in summer 2021.
In reaction to the complaint, the Berliner Baederbetriebe, which runs the city’s public pools, decided to change its clothing rules. Doris Liebscher, the head of the ombudsperson’s office, was quoted as telling The Independent, “The ombudsperson’s office very much welcomes the decision of the Baederbetriebe, because it establishes equal rights for all Berliners, whether male, female or non-binary, and because it also creates legal certainty for the staff at the Baederbetriebe.”
She added: “Now it is important that the regulation is applied consistently and that no more expulsions or house bans are issued.”
Taking the plunge
Berlin is now one of the many German cities that allow people to swim while topless. Göttingen in Lower Saxony and Siegen in North Rhine Westphalia allowed women to swim topless last summer.
Hanover also changed its regulations to require only “primary sex organs” to be covered in pools, according to Euronews.
Germany’s buff history
The move in Berlin also speaks to Germany’s love of Freikoerperkultur or FKK — which has its origins in the German Empire. Freikörperkultur, which translates to free body culture, consists in the connection of health aspects of being naked in light, air and sun with intentions to reform life and society. It is identical with the culture of nudity or naturism.
Arnd Bauerkämper, associate professor of modern history at Freie University in Berlin, in a BBC report said, “Nudism has had a long tradition in Germany. At the turn of the 20th Century, Lebensreform (“life reform”) was in the air, a philosophy that advocated for organic food, sexual liberation, alternative medicine and simpler living closer to nature. Nudism is part of this broader movement, which was directed against industrial modernity, against the new society that emerged in the late 19th Century.”
The first FKK club in Germany was founded in Essen in 1898. For naturalism supporters back then, being naked was liberating. German fashion at the turn of the century was restricting and stifling — ridding yourself of such garments couldn’t help but be a political message.
The movement emphasised on health as well as freeing people from shame, social inequality and from the unhealthy living environments in the crowded cities of early industrialisation.
In 1920, Germany established its first nude beach on the island of Sylt.
The nudist movement was initially banned by the Nazis in a moral clampdown, but continued to gain popularity. According to a CNN report, after World War II, the FKK became particularly prevalent in East Germany, becoming a form of escape from the uniforms, marches and conformity of the communist state.
FKK also non-sexualises the body. East Berlin-born Gregor Gysi, president of the European Left, in a Deutsche Welle (DW) report said: “I see FKK as a possible counterweight to the ubiquitous sexualisation in advertising, but also in society in general.”
Proponents of this culture also state that FKK has beneficial effects on body image and wellbeing. “Nudism makes us happier,” concluded Dr Keon West, a psychology professor at the University of London, who conducted a 2017 survey of 850 British people on the subject.
Going out of fashion
However, this culture is dying a slow death in Germany. The number of members of Germany’s 145 nudists clubs has fallen to fewer than 40,000. “Society is changing,” Kurt Fischer, president of the German Federation of Naturist Clubs (DFK), told the AFP in 2014.
In 2019, author Kurt Starke in his book Nudity Congestion, stated that FKK is no longer a trend.” “Now stretches of beach dedicated to FKK are reduced and often even combined with the stretches of beach reserved for dog walkers,” he was quoted as telling The Guardian.
Gysi in a DW report also commented on the decline of FKK, saying: “I think it’s a pity because FKK has class.”
Many who support FKK believe that a social media-driven desire for the perfect body as well as a more multicultural society where newcomers are not so willing to accept the FKKlers’ acceptance of public nudity is the cause for the trend to be dying out.
A report published by Forbes also said that many young people aren’t comfortable baring it all in public. In fact, studies show that most of the naked sunbathers are either over 45 or infants, while bathers in the buff under 25 have become rare.
“Younger people are far less likely than their parents to strip off their trunks or bikinis in public, in part because they regard fashion as a crucial marker of group identity,” said Kurt Fischer, president of the German Federation of Naturist Clubs (DFK).
He also blamed materialism: “People are now defined by their appearance and the concept that ‘naked we are all equal’ is hardly winning,” he told Salon.
But, here’s the (bare) bottom line: FKK still remains part of German culture — never mind the aesthetics.
With inputs from agencies